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Help End Homelessness: Volunteer at Project Homeless Connect

Spring is almost here; our neighborhoods are full of jonquils and the red bud trees are coming alive. I think it is safe to say that there will be only a few more days that require layers of wool coats and down jackets.

We have had a rough winter. While Snowmageddon and the Wintry Mix are less-than-pleasant recollections for anyone who spent multiple hours trapped on the roads in January, there is much to be said for the touching memory of our community pulling together to tow friends, neighbors and complete strangers from ditches; of exhausted teachers staying in inaccessible schools to keep the iced-in students safe; and of the outpouring of clothing, food, blankets, hygiene items and love for citizens in our City’s warming center at the Boutwell Auditorium.  Yes, I said “love.” Members of our community who have never met someone experiencing homelessness were moved by the plight of Birmingham citizens with no heat, no water and no bed to call their own.

The various churches, civic groups, nonprofits and individuals felt like the frigid temperatures of Snowmageddon constituted a crisis; they all felt that they MUST do something about the problem. That feeling of urgency, that recognition of a crisis, spurred them to volunteer and to donate, to step outside of themselves to help others. I am grateful to live in a community that has this kind of concern and love for all citizens, including those experiencing homelessness. However, I wonder what we could do if we didn’t wait for a crisis?

What would happen if all of the faith-based organizations, civic groups, nonprofits and individuals pooled resources to work on specific issues that contribute to homelessness, to solve problems that make people homeless, and to eliminate barriers that keep them homeless? Does it sound too good to be true that people of all faiths, races and socio-economic levels could play well together?  That happened with the Warming Station, and that was primarily about homelessness. Project Homeless Connect is coming up on April 5th, and it is 100% about homelessness, and is a model of what happens when people collaborate to address homelessness.

Project Homeless Connect is a one day annual event designed to provide services to people in homelessness – services that a person needs to get out of homelessness. This event is a partnership between the City of Birmingham, One Roof, Hands On Birmingham and United Way, but there are more than 65 agencies, businesses and organizations that collaborate to make the event successful. There are event leaders, but everyone works together with one plan and with one goal – – provide what homeless people need to get themselves permanently out of homelessness. All of the organizers pool their resources, make plans collaboratively, and work shoulder-to-shoulder the day of the event to make Project Homeless Connect successful.

We have seen our community’s amazing response to the 60+ hours of below-freezing weather. What could happen if the community worked collaboratively to pool resources, to make collaborative plans, and to work shoulder-to-shoulder to prevent the need for a Warming Station? If you would like to see a one-day answer to this question, volunteer to work at Project Homeless Connect by signing up at Hands On Birmingham to be a Smiling Face on April 5, 2014. If you are moved, fascinated and enlightened by what you experience at PHC on April 5, 2014, consider getting involved with One Roof, the agency that works daily to bring all the right resources, all the right people and all the right answers to our community to fulfill our mission of equipping and empowering our community to end homelessness through advocacy, education and coordination of services.

SnowMageddon was a crisis. Our community responded. The 1,469 people homeless on any given night in our area constitute a crisis. Help One Roof respond to homelessness by volunteering at Project Homeless Connect on April 5, 2014.

 

Michelle Farley is the Executive Director of One Roof. 

 

Why We’re Here

As you may remember, One Roof partnered with students from UAB’s Inter-professional Global Health Service Learning program last semester to pilot a vulnerability survey in three of our member agencies that provide emergency shelter. The pilot and our partnership with UAB’s IGHSL program reflect our mission to equip and empower our community to prevent and end homelessness through advocacy, education, and the coordination of services. The information we gathered allowed us to better understand the vulnerability of our emergency shelter population, to know how many of these folks are living with serious, yet treatable or manageable health conditions that might cause irreparable damage or death without appropriate treatment and care. The more we know about persons experiencing homelessness in our area, the better we are able to advocate, educate, and coordinate services to meet their needs.

We strive to take every opportunity to equip and empower our community, and this means finding new resources and new community partners. We know that our efforts to prevent and end homelessness are not as visible as they could be. We need more community members to know what we’re doing to prevent and end homelessness and why we’re doing it. Increased support allows us to pursue more projects like the vulnerability survey pilot. These projects allow us to more effectively achieve our mission, and to research and implement tools and practices that will increase the stability of our community members. We will not stop furthering our mission until everyone in our community has a safe, decent, and affordable home, and we need more community support to do this.

One Roof is partnering with a new group of IGHSL students this semester to research ways to increase visibility of our efforts. Our goal: to be more transparent about what we do and gain the support of more service providers, organizations, businesses, concerned citizens, and community members like you. Our students, April, Macy, Caitlin, Jawanza, and Kayla, have shown us that in order to gain more support, we must educate our community and challenge pervasive stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness. We must show our community that each person experiencing homelessness is a person first, not their housing status, mental illness, disabling condition, HIV diagnosis, history of substance abuse, history of domestic violence, veteran status, or any other experience or condition that may have caused them to experience homelessness.

We must show our community that each person deserves stability and a safe, decent, and affordable place to call home. We must take every opportunity to advocate and educate. And we do. And we will. One Roof regularly provides educational opportunities for our members, including workshops like Homelessness 101 (offered quarterly) and Transgender 101 (offered last fall after repeated requests from various members), and guest speakers covering issues related to youth, veterans, domestic violence survivors, inclusive policies, and more at our monthly membership meetings. Our second annual Cardboard Connect, an event for youth ages 13-18 intended to raise awareness of homelessness in our community, is happening this weekend.

We believe that education is necessary to equip and empower members of our community to help us prevent and end homelessness. We have a wealth of knowledge about homelessness in our area, and we want to share it. We want to use this knowledge to help some of the most vulnerable folks in our area.

We recently offered a Homelessness 101 workshop for our IGHSL students to further educate them about homelessness in our area, as well as show them first-hand one of our many efforts to achieve our mission. It’s clear to us that we’ve educated, equipped, and empowered our student partners in a meaningful way:

“This class was a fantastic resource to become more aware of, knowledgeable to, and prepared for serving the overall homeless population, not only in the Birmingham area but also on the state and national level.” -April

“I was shocked about some of the information…such as, in Jefferson County there are approximately 1469 individuals without stable housing. This information was collected by the Point in Time census that occurs every year. I probably would have never known that information if it weren’t for this presentation.” -Jawanza

“The goal when helping any population of people is to make sure they feel as comfortable and as safe as possible, and this workshop teaches you how you can best meet these needs.” -Kayla

“…I believe it is necessary to break such stereotypes when given the chance, and one of the best ways to start this process is by being educated on the topic. That is…why I found One Roof’s workshop presentation on ‘Homelessness 101’ to be invaluable.” -Macy

“Everybody has a story, a reason for the situation they are in, and why they are the way that they are.” -Caitlin

We believe that each person in our community deserves stability and a safe, decent, and affordable home. This belief drives everything we do; it’s why we’re here. Preventing and ending homelessness is a community effort, and we cannot do this without you. Your support allows us to advocate, educate, and coordinate services in the best and most effective way. Together we can make a positive and sustainable change in our community: we can prevent and end homelessness. Click here to support our efforts and learn more about One Roof.

 

Josh Helms is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Capacity Building Assistant.

Hungry People

Have you ever started a conversation with someone when you KNEW that what you had to say might not be very palatable? Forget “not very palatable…;” what you have to say might just annoy people…  This is one of those times. Because I know that what I am about to say might be controversial, I ask you now to just stay with me until the end…hear me out please.

Back to the hungry people.  There was an item in the national news last August regarding “feeding the homeless.” The short story is that a church group in Raleigh had been going to a City park on weekends for six years to hand out food to “the homeless.” In August they were stopped by the police and told that they could no longer distribute food because of a city ordinance. The church was upset, the police were upset, the Mayor and City council were upset, and the people not being fed were upset. The comments were free-flowing, the rhetoric spewed forth from both sides, and very few of those making comments really stopped to listen to the others.

The story reminded me a great deal of our situation here in Birmingham.

  1. We are blessed with a large number of generous, mission-minded church and civic groups that see need in our community and/or hear the voice of God and are moved to “feed the homeless,” and usually share the gospel as well. Many church and civic groups take food to Birmingham parks and other public places and distribute that food plus clothing or other items to the people assumed to be homeless who congregate there.
  2. We have 1469 men, women and children who experience homelessness on any given night. This number includes those in emergency shelter, homeless programs, and those who sleep on the streets, in abandoned buildings and other places that no one should have to sleep. There are many thousands more who are impoverished or at-risk of homelessness.
  3. We have an appalling shortage of affordable housing. Based on estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Alabama lacks over 90,000 affordable and available homes for individuals and families living with extremely low incomes. The Fair Market Rent (the average price so to speak) for a two-bedroom apartment is $664.00 a month.  It is recommended that a household not pay more than 30% of income on housing, which means that a household must earn $2213 monthly, or $26,554 a year to afford an apartment. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, if an individual earns the Alabama minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, s/he must work 70 hours a week, 52 weeks a year to afford that two-bedroom apartment. Please see LIHCA Fact Sheet for further statistics.
  4. We have hungry people in our area. I don’t think any of you doubt me when I say that, but just in case, let me share information from Magic City Harvest:  100,000 men, women and children in our area are food insecure. That means that they struggle throughout the year (not just at holiday time) to put food on the table, with children and seniors being our most vulnerable. While it may not be a shock to you to know that we have hungry people, it may shock you to know that 40% of all food in the United States is wasted.  By the way, Magic City Harvest is the only program in our area dedicated to recovering prepared and perishable food. Note that there are 100,000 men, women and children in our area who are food insecure. There are 1469 men women and children who are homeless on any given night….many more people hungry than have lost their homes.
  5. We have a multitude of really good social service agencies that work daily to prevent and end homelessness, and we have a number of really good people in mainstream agencies that work hard to get state and federal benefits into the hands of people most in need. Unfortunately, both the social service agencies and the mainstream benefits agencies see that the need is much greater than the resources available.

Back to the beginning of this blog…why should what I’m saying offend anyone?

Because I am going to suggest that while feeding someone in a park or other public property is, on the surface, a nice, thoughtful, caring gesture, we as a community are able to do better than this.

To find a solution to a problem or concern, you must first understand the problem. Let’s see if we can do that in a pared-down, few-bullet-points type manner.

  • Who may be hungry?
  1. Seniors living on low, fixed incomes.
  2. Children in families living on minimum wage.
  3. Individuals who are underemployed or unemployed.
  4. Families and individuals that have only Disability income to pay their bills.
  5. Families and individuals that pay so much for housing costs (rent, insurance and utilities) that they do not have enough money left over for food.
  6. Families and individuals who have experienced a personal crisis that was financially draining (job loss, car accident, hospitalization, chronic illness, divorce, etc.)
  7. Families and individuals who are living on the streets and in the sewer tunnels of our area.
  8. People who are housed in neighborhoods with little or no access to grocery stores, farmers markets, etc.
  • Why does hunger exist?
  1. Families and individuals do not have enough money to purchase all of the nutritious food that they need to NOT be hungry.
  2. Food Stamps are not sufficient to supply all of the healthy food that a person needs.
  3. We have neighborhoods that are food deserts meaning that there is no nearby grocery store to purchase fresh, healthy, market rate food, and there is insufficient public transportation to take neighborhood residents to grocery stores.
  4. It is difficult for people living on the streets to get three meals a day, every day.
  5. The cost of living has risen 67% since 1990 but the real value of the minimum wage has increased only 21%.
  • What makes people want to “feed the homeless?”
  1. It feels good to help someone else.
  2. Some people feel it is their mission/calling to feed people.
  3. The general public wants to “help others.”
  4. Some schools and civic organizations require volunteer or community service hours.
  5. Parents want children to understand that not everyone has material blessings.
  • When are people hungry?
  1. People experiencing homelessness can get at least one meal per day, every day of the week. Firehouse Shelter and Salvation Army serve a community lunch every day and anyone can receive that meal without explaining their need. There are several additional agencies that serve breakfast or brunch, or offer a sack lunch most days of the week.
  2. There is less food available from social service agencies on the weekends than during the week.
  3. People who are housed but who do not have sufficient income for food tend to be most in need the last two weeks of the month. By this time, food stamp allocations have been used up and income has been expended.
  4. People who live in neighborhoods that are food deserts are hungry any time transportation to a grocery store is insufficient or unavailable.
  • What are people hungry for?
  1. People who are housed but in need, and people experiencing homelessness generally have access to only the cheapest foods (potatoes, rice, bread, cheap fatty meat cuts) and have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and quality lean meats. The cheap foods also tend to be the most unhealthy, and the more expensive foods are the most healthy. This means that needy people often tend to be hungry for healthy foods.
  2. People who are housed but in need, are hungry for a way out of poverty, whether that means a job that pays a decent wage, or a home that is structurally sound so that utility bills are affordable, or access to technical training or higher education.
  3. People experiencing homelessness are hungry for the things they need to get out of homelessness permanently. For most these would include a decent, affordable place to live; a  job, or a better job than the one they have; possibly drug or alcohol treatment; mental health care; access to affordable medical care; and a support system of some sort.
  • What is the goal of providing food in public places?
  1. Provide food so that people are not hungry.
  2. Fulfill a personal or spiritual mission.
  3. Educate children and young people.
  4. Get a good feeling for having helped someone less fortunate than yourself.
  • What are alternatives to feeding needy people in public places?
  1. Work with neighborhood leaders to develop a food pantry in needy neighborhoods so that residents have access to quality food when it is needed. Your actions may very well help prevent homelessness.
  2. Donate funds or nonperishable foods to already existing food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens and donate prepared/ excess food to the food reclamation agency, Magic City Harvest. Food gets to the people in need, and waste is reduced.
  3. Partner with existing social service agencies serving people who are homeless to serve food and to have social or spiritual time with the clients. Those social service agencies will have restrooms available so that people being fed can wash their hands and use the restroom after a meal. There will also be case managers available who are experienced in assisting people to overcome the barriers that keep them homeless.
  4. Work with your local school to see if children who receive reduced or free lunches are given some sort of take-home ready-to-eat meals for weekends. If not, can you provide help?
  5. Consider volunteering with or donating to a Meals on Wheels program for seniors in need.
  6. Talk with your house of worship or your civic organization to work on strategies that can prevent homelessness and get people out of homelessness. Call One Roof for more information.
  7. Advocate for area changes that increase the capacity of our public transportation system, that promote job growth and that revitalize neighborhoods.
  8. Support your local Farmer’s Market , your local Teaching Farm, and consider talking with your house of worship or civic group about using any vacant land to do an urban garden.
  9. Get to know your neighbors; you will be more likely to know if they are in need and you will be more likely to get them to collaborate with you in assisting others in need.

Should hungry people be fed? I think the only possible response is yes. Are there options other than public feedings in parks? There are definitely some options worth discussing….options that provide human dignity, build someone’s self-esteem and further someone’s journey towards self-reliance. Wouldn’t these options lead to a positive impact in our city that goes far beyond an afternoon lunch in the park?

 

Michelle Farley is the Executive Director of One Roof. 

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